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Chinese Folktales: An Annotated Bibliography
Developed by Judi Moreillon

I chose to research Chinese folktales as part of my investigation into the cultural motifs found in "Li Chi Slays the Serpent." I discovered that many folktale picture books do not provide readers with sufficient background knowledge and source information to determine whether or not they are authentic. Storytellers, book reviewers, librarians, and teachers must often rely on the reputation of the authors and illustrators rather than concrete evidence of cultural authenticity.
"Li Chi Slays the Serpent" dates from the period of the Ch'in dynasty (221 B.C.E. to 206 B.C.E.). Qin Shi Huang, who began building the Great Wall, became emperor in 221 B.C.E. and set out to unify China. The Great Wall was built to protect the country from foreign invaders.
I have researched, retold, and written this story as "The Great Deed of Li Ji," the 3.1 mentor text for the activating and building background knowledge lesson in my book Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact (ALA Editions, 2012).

The Hunter Book Jacket

Casanova, Mary. The Hunter: A Chinese Folktale. Illus. by Ed Young. 2000. 32p. Atheneum. $17.99 (978-0689829062)
In a small village in China, a drought has made the people weak and hungry. Daily Hai Li Bu, a good hunter, brings back what he can to feed the people. One day, he rescues a snake who happens to be the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea. For his reward, Hai Li Bu asks for the ability to understand the language of animals so he can be a better hunter and help his village. He receives a stone with that magic power and a warning never to reveal from where his ability comes.

Everyone in the village grows healthy and strong from Hai Li Bu’s powers. When he learns from the animals that a great storm is coming, Hai Li Bu tells the people they must flee; they refuse. A village elder asks Hai Li Bu to tell how he knows of the impending disaster and the hunter, who is unwilling to let his friends die in the flood, turns to stone as he reveals his secret. The people are saved and learn the lesson that they should trust and listen to each other, even to the youngest child.

Author Mary Casanova first heard this folktale from a Chinese exchange student. She researched the story and provides a source in a book published in China. In her retelling, Casanova uses rich sensory images to enhance the simple plot. The story has several Chinese folktale motifs: a young person determined to help others, a dragon king, and a village elder. Ed Young’s expressive gouache and pastel illustrations enhance the story. He includes Chinese calligraphy of the main idea in the right-hand corner of double-page spread. Translations of these characters are included on the verso of the title page.

Sweet and Sour: Tales from China Book Jacket

Kendall, Carol, and Yao-wen Li. Sweet and Sour: Tales from China. Illus. by Shirley Felts. 2006. 114p. Clarion. $6.95 (978-0618752454)
This collection contains twenty-four folk and fairy tales, anecdotes, parables, fables, and jokes. In the introduction, the authors provide source notes for many of the stories included in the collection. The story on which I based my retelling of “The Great Deed of Li Chi” appears as “The Serpent-Slayer” in this collection. The authors note this story dates from the fourth century AD and discuss the extraordinary amount of detail about the setting, which is unusal in folk literature. The authors do not provide a specific source for the story.

The Sweet and Sour: Tales from China version is quite different from the other two I read that formed the basis of my retelling. The place names are different, and the victims are taken to the serpent’s cave on the first rather than the eighth day of the eighth month. This variant includes the counsel and corrupt activities of a sorceress, who informs the magistrate of the serpent’s demands and then takes bribes to spare the daughters of rich parents. The sorceress intercedes with the town officials to procure the supplies Li Chi needs to cook the riceballs that tempt the serpent. As in my version and the two mentioned in my research, Li Chi is aided by a dog and her sword in overpowering the serpent.

I was unable to find a critical review of this book in a database. This title was first published in 1978, which may be one reason why offers the Publisher’s Weekly blurb, which calls the collection “intriguing.” The author information on the original book jacket says that Kendall studied Chinese. Li was born and raised in Canton, China. She came to the U. S. in 1947. Li visited her native country in 1973, which sparked her interest in traditional Chinese tales.

In the edition pictured here, Shirley Felts’ pen and ink drawings add charm and a bit of cultural information to the stories.

The Dragon Prince Book Jacket

Yep, Laurence. The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale. Illus. by Kam Mak. HarperCollins. 1997. 32p. $14.95 (978-0374411893)
This story of love and envy will appeal to intermediate and middle school students, especially girls. In this tale, a poor farmer’s seven daughters are named only by their birth order. When Three, who is jealous of her youngest sister, is about to kill a serpent, kind-hearted Seven intervenes and saves the small creature. As it turns out, the serpent changes itself into a dragon, captures the farmer, and demands the hand in marriage of one of the daughters in exchange for their father’s life. All refuse, except for Seven.

Of course, the dragon is really a prince in disguise. Seven’s new life in his palace beneath the sea is full of opulence and love. Still, she misses her family and asks to return home. She brings riches to share, but that is not enough for Three. The jealous sister takes Seven’s clothing, pushes her into the river, and returns to the prince in her sister’s place. The prince is not fooled and comes looking for Seven, who had been rescued by an old woman. In the end, the lovers are united and Three is sent back to the farm.

In the two-sentence acknowledgements, the author states that this story is “a Southern Chinese version" of a traditional Chinese tale. Like the other book reviewers, I would have liked to have known at least one source of the story so I could determine how much Yep adapted this tale. Similar to Ed Young, Laurence Yep, who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, has made a reputation as an authentic voice of Chinese and Chinese American culture.

The illustrator Kim Mak grew up in Chinatown in New York City. His depictions of the dragon with a fiery face and golden scales are stunning, especially the double-paged spread and the final image. With bold color and rich texture, he illustrates the settings and traditional Chinese dress in the story.

The Sons of the Dragon King Book Jacket

Young, Ed. The Sons of the Dragon King: A Chinese Legend. 2004. 32p. Atheneum. $16.95 (0-689-85184-7)
In The Sons of the Dragon King, Ed Young retells a legend that helps explain nine animal symbols that are still used in Chinese culture. The legend says that the Dragon King’s subjects reported that each of his sons was lazy or frivolous. Each time the King set out to confront one of his offspring, he discovered that son had a unique talent that could make a contribution to society. For example, one son, Pu-Lao, sings loudly but the King decides if he compliments rather than scolds his son, he will practice and improve his voice. Pu-Lao’s animal symbol is often carved on musical instruments.

With impressionistic brush and ink, Young captures the essence of each son on the left-side of each double-page spread, and then using cut paper and ink on the right side, he shows the animal image of that son in use in modern-day China. The book includes an author’s note that claims there are many different variants of traditional stories rooted in various regions, but he does not give the source of the version he retells in this book.

Ed Young, who was born and raised in China, has an established reputation as an author and illustrator of Chinese traditional literature. The text and illustration in this retelling accurately reflect Chinese cultural values, such as the role of parents, particularly the father, in the lives of their children, and Chinese cultural symbols in the form of the animals that represent each son. The simple plot has a repetitive pattern that communicates the message: Everyone has a unique talent that can be useful to society. From a cultural authenticity standpoint, knowing the source of this legend would have improved this otherwise effective and skillfully illustrated book.

Chinese Folk Tales (II) Book Jacket

Zhao, Jie. Chinese Folk Tales (II). Translated by Gua Bingke. Illus. by Wang Ping and Zhang Ming. 2005. 32p. Dolphin. $9.00 (978-7801385406)
This bilingual collection, published in Beijing, includes seven folktales; it is the second book in a series. The author and illustrators are Chinese. Unfortunately, I could not find a review of this book through Book Review Digest Plus; not even lists a review.

These are the assumptions I am making about cultural authenticity. This book was published in China and its creators are Chinese. It is translated from the Chinese and is presented bilingually, with English first, followed by Chinese characters. There is additional Chinese writing on the top of each page, which I infer is the story title, and the CIP at the end of the book is in Chinese only. Although there is no source information, at least not in English, several of the stories begin with a reference to the dynasty in which the story reportedly happened or was first told.

Due to these features, I assume these tales are authentic. The pen and ink illustrations depict ancient Chinese culture and support readers who are unfamiliar with the culture as they visualize the characters and settings in the stories.

“Mandarin Gown” was my favorite of these tales. It will appeal to middle school girls especially because the main character is a new concubine of the emperor who has trouble following tradition. She alters her dress to make it more comfortable, more modern. The story also deals with jealousy over physical beauty with fatal consequences for the “dark-skinned girl.” In the ironic ending, the jealous women “honor” the concubine by wearing their dresses in her style, the Mandarin gown.

Additional Support for Studying Chinese Culture

Simonds, Nina, Swartz, Leslie, and The Children's Museum, Boston. Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes. Illustrated by Meilo So. 2002. 74p. Harcourt, $32.95 (0152019839)
The activities and recipes in this book are focused around five festivals: Chinese New Year, The Lantern Festival, Qui Mind and the Cold Foods Festival, The Dragon Boat Festival, and The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Educators will use the brief background information and a short story about each festival to help young readers understand the cultural context of the fun and food. Meilo So's watercolor illustrations and Chinese characters (script) provide added interest and contribute to the information in the book. Nina Simonds is a thirty-year student of Chinese cooking. Leslie Swartz develops education programs for the Boston Children's Museum and has traveled extensively in China.

Book Review Sources:
TWU Databases: EBSCO Academic Search Complete (formerly Wilson Web - Book Review Digest Plus)

Work Cited

npclark2lk. "China011.jpg." MorgueFile. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Dec. 2013.< >>.

Works Consulted

Bush, Elizabeth. "The Sons of the Dragon King (Book Review)." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57.11 (2004): 490. Article Citation. Web. 18 May 2010.

Cai, Mingshui. "Images of Chinese and Chinese Americans Mirrored in Picture Books." Children's Literature in Education, 25.3: 169-191.

Chang, Margaret A. "The Dragon Prince (Book Review)." School Library Journal 43 (1997): 126. Article Citation. Web. 22 May 2010.

Del Negro, Janice. M. “The Hunter (Book Review).” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 54.3 (2000): 99. Article Citation. Web. 19 May 2010.

Hearne, Betsy. "The Dragon Prince (Book Review)." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 51 (1997): 144. Article Citation. Web. 22 May 2010.

Lickteig, Mary J. “The Hunter (Book Review).” Multicultural Review 10.1 (2001): 96:7. Article Citation. Web. 19 May 2010.

Oliff, Grace. “The Sons of the Dragon King (Book Review)." School Library Journal 50.6 (2004): 134. Article Citation. Web. 18 May 2010.

Publisher’s Weekly. “Sweet and Sour: Tales from China (Book Review).” 21 May 2010.